Three of Northern Ireland's hotspots for marine life have been put forward for protection as Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs).
The Department of the Environment has drawn up boundaries for MCZs at Rathlin, Outer Belfast Lough and Carlingford Lough - where commercial activity could be permitted but the main focus will be conservation.
Designating these hotspots will mean added protection for black guillemots on Rathlin, fragile sea pen communities in Carlingford Lough and colonies of quahog, a long-lived clam, in Belfast Lough.
It follows on from the designation of Strangford Lough as Northern Ireland's first MCZ last year.
The DoE is also investigating sites at Outer Ards, the Maidens, Foyle and Dundrum as potential MCZs, but has dropped Larne Lough because the black guillemots it harbours are already included in the Rathlin MCZ.
It will also look at Ardglass Gullies and Redbay seagrass beds after these were nominated by wildlife organisations, but has refused to include Islandmagee. The Co Antrim peninsula is home to important seabird colonies at the Isle of Muck and the Gobbins.
The DoE said it intends to establish an ecologically coherent network of sites by December 2016, but sites such as Lough Foyle are unlikely to be designated by then due to "jurisdictional issues".
Wildlife organisations have warned that sufficient budgets must be provided for the MCZs to be more than "paper parks".
Welcoming the plans, the Northern Ireland Marine Task Force (NIMTF), a coalition of environmental groups, said designating the sites will be a significant step towards the protection of important marine species and habitats for Northern Ireland.
But it called for continued work to develop more Marine Conservation Zones and the need to ensure a network of well-managed Marine Protected Areas are in place around our coasts. "This is a crucial time for developing and implementing vital marine protection for our seas around Northern Ireland," Kenny Bodles from NIMTF said.
"By designating more MCZs in the future - including key marine areas in Lough Foyle and mud habitat in the western Irish Sea - we feel an 'ecologically coherent' network of Marine Protected Areas for Northern Ireland can be achieved and offer the best possible protection for our rich, unique and highly valuable marine environment."
Dr Jade Berman from Ulster Wildlife said: "It is important in these times of cuts that the DoE has enough budget available not only to designate the marine conservation zones, but also to manage and monitor them, otherwise they will only be paper parks."
Outer Belfast Lough: This rich biological site on the outer edge of our busiest sea lough features mud and sand habitats and rocky shore. A small area hosts ocean quahog, a large clam that lives buried in the sediment and can survive a long time without oxygen to escape predators. The animal can reach more than 400 years of age. It is an important food source for several species of fish and is commercially fished.
Rathlin: Between the north of Rathlin and the North Channel is the only known deep seabed habitat in Northern Irish waters - associated with cold water coral and skate. Features include underwater caves, sea arches and lagoons. A shallow shelf drops over 200m to the north-west, with a submerged lagoon to the north east. A large population of black guillemot nest on nearby cliffs. A rich marine cultural heritage includes wrecks and artefacts dating back 7,000 years, including WWI-era armoured cruiser, HMS Drake.
Carlingford Lough: The narrow and shallow sea lough at the mouth of the Newry River has depths ranging from 2m-36m and is shared by Northern Ireland and the Republic. Sand and mudflats are key feeding grounds for overwintering birds. The proposed site is shallow subtidal mud containing sea pen in rare high densities with sea slug, sea cucumber, gobies (fish) and saltwater clams. which create complex burrows.